The St. Louis Blues aren't where they wanted to be right now.
After a 3-0 start to the 2022-23 season, the Blues have lost five straight — their longest regulation losing streak since Craig Berube took over as head coach in November 2018. With roughly 10% of the season complete, they sit in last place in the Central Division (though they have a higher points percentage than the Nashville Predators) and are tied for the third-worst goal differential in the NHL at -11.
There's no reason St. Louis can't turn things around — after all, we're talking about the same organization that had the NHL's worst record on January 3, 2019 and ended up winning the Stanley Cup six months later. As panic ensues, it's worth noting that the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, still widely regarded as the most talented club in the league, have just one more win and three more points than the Blues. But the fact of the matter is that the team isn't playing well right now, and general manager Doug Armstrong, head coach Craig Berube and numerous players have made it clear in recent days that things need to change in order for the club to start having success again.
Here are four areas of focus as the Blues look to turn things around.
Raise the compete level: If there's one thing that Blues players and management have made clear over the last week, it's that they simply aren't competing hard enough right now. "It's the way we lose," Armstrong said. "We don't lose with pride.
"I think the competition builds off of our body language. When we don't score, we have a group of guys that believe 'I can't believe this is happening to me,' and a group of guys that believe they're not a part of the problem, when in reality we're all part of the problem, starting with me."
"There's not enough effort from our group, and that's the bottom line," said defenseman Justin Faulk. "We need to find ways to get the energy to just compete. That's all there is to it. Turnovers, whatever else — it all stems from not playing a hard enough game."
Forward Brayden Schenn believes St. Louis needs to get back to the "sandpaper" style that was so crucial to its Stanley Cup championship in 2019: "It's a staple of Blues hockey — come after them wave after wave — and we haven't seen much of that this year. We have to correct it and correct it fast."
While playing with more gusto can only help so much in the ultra-competitive world of professional sports, Armstrong believes it's the area in which the team can make the most rapid improvement. "We have to start to compete at a higher level," the general manager said. "The competition and the competing is going to show itself. It might not show itself in wins, but it's going to show itself in how we play, and then the wins will follow that."
Get tougher in front of the net: Defensive inconsistency has been a theme for the Blues over the last two seasons, and it's cropped up again early in 2022-23. Their goaltenders' stats don't look great right now — Jordan Binnington has a 3.28 goals-against average and .882 save percentage in six games, while Thomas Greiss has a 3.28 GAA and .915 save percentage in three games — but the defense hasn't done the netminders any favors. The Blues are allowing a relatively tame 31.4 shots per game, but they've given their opponents too many easy opportunities.
"We expose our goaltenders," Armstrong said. "If you look at our goaltenders the last three or four games, there has to be at least two-thirds or three-quarters of the goals that are back-door tap-ins. That's not on the goalie. The goalie has to face what he faces, but we're not competing at our net."
Faulk, who said the Blues left Jordan Binnington out to dry on "most if not all the goals" in Monday's loss to the Kings, concurs with Armstrong's assessment of the recent defensive performance: "There's not enough guys on the puck, not enough support. Guys aren't winning battles, and then if they do, we're getting beat to loose pucks."
"We can't ask the goalies to make back-door saves. It's unrealistic," Faulk said. "We have to be better as a group of six. We've got to be a lot harder, a lot more competitive and not give them the easy way to the net."
"Our defensive core as a group hasn't played to the standards that are necessary of being competitive in front of our net," said Armstrong. "A lot of that is we're not a group of five going up the ice, and we're certainly not a group of five coming back (down) the ice."
Shoot more accurately: Perhaps the most drastic difference between last season's Blues, who ranked third in the NHL with 3.77 goals per game, and this year's team, which ranks last at 2.38, is shooting accuracy. St. Louis led the NHL with a 12.4% team shooting percentage in 2021-22. This season, it is tied for 28th in that category at 8.2%. Berube believes it comes down to taking advantage of high-quality opportunities. "The chances we're missing are Grade-A chances," the head coach said. "You look at analytics and everything with scoring, and that's where you score goals — Grade-A chances. We're missing too many of them right now."
"One of the things I wanted to really concentrate on was how many times we missed the net in practice, and that wasn't high today," Armstrong said after the team skated Tuesday. "If the puck doesn't go in, you have to create the opportunity for someone else to score, and you can't score when the puck's banging off the glass and going out of the zone. I think we have to continue to put pucks on the net, take what's given to us and then go to those areas where you're scoring. As the day is long, hockey's been the same way — if you win the front of your net and the front of their net, you're going to win a lot of hockey games. If you lose both of those, which we are now, you're not going to win very much."
Follow the lead of the fourth line: The Blues' bottom line, which has primarily featured Alexey Toropchenko, Noel Acciari and Tyler Pitlick in recent games, has combined for just four points this season, but the trio has provided an impressive amount of energy in the offensive zone and has generated some solid scoring chances. They've had some better luck in the past couple games, with Acciari scoring Saturday against Montreal and Toropchenko picking up a goal Monday against Los Angeles. Armstrong hopes they can provide an example for the rest of the Blues' forwards.
"If you have to pick a positive out of the first 10% of the season, I have been impressed with our fourth line," the GM said. "I think they come in, they give us energy."
As far as Armstrong is concerned, it's now a matter of the Blues' top three lines playing with that same pace and effectiveness: "When they put that good shift in, we don't follow it up with another good shift. We follow it up with sloppy play or turnovers or things that allow the other team to grab momentum. When you have a group of players that change the momentum, it's incumbent on the next group to come out and keep that momentum, and we don't have that right now."
"I think we're getting a lot of effort from them," Berube said of the fourth line. "Our top guys, they've got to dig in. They're not digging in enough. They're too soft, they're not direct enough, they're not north enough, they're not going to the net enough, they're not checking enough."
As solid as the Blues' fourth line has been, it doesn't appear that Berube is dead set on keeping the group together. Acciari practiced on a line with Schenn and Ryan O'Reilly on Tuesday and could be in line for more minutes as the team searches for a spark up front. With Acciari's potential promotion, Logan Brown — who had a strong stretch as the fourth-line center late last season — could slide in between Toropchenko and Pitlick.
The Blues will look to get back in the win column on Thursday as they host the New York Islanders. Coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. on Bally Sports Midwest.